Breast cancer isn’t just a “women’s disease” — men are also at risk, though male breast cancer diagnoses are rare. Stigma and barriers to treatment surround male breast cancer diagnoses, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Causes of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer occurs when the cells in the breast grow out of control and begin to form a tumor — which may be felt as a lump. When the tumor becomes malignant, or cancerous, the cells can invade the surrounding tissues and the cancer can spread to other areas of the body through the blood. Breast cancer is predominantly found in women: about one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer at some point during their life, while one in 833 men are at risk of breast cancer.

The cancer can originate from different parts of the breast, such as the ducts that carry milk to the nipple or the glands that make the milk. Although they are normally nonfunctional, men have these ducts and glands as well. Not all cancers create lumps that can be felt in the breast, and many tumors are actually benign, or non-cancerous. These benign tumors are abnormal, but are usually not life-threatening since they will not spread to other parts of the body.

Dr. Yara Robertson, a breast surgical oncologist at the CARTI Cancer Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, says, “men are usually at higher risk of developing breast cancer when they have a genetic link, such as when many women in their families have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations — which causes an increased risk of breast cancer.” 

Robertson also states, “aging is another risk factor; breast cancer in men younger than 50 is quite rare, as older men are more likely to develop a genetic mutation.” 

According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, men with breast cancer can also pass down their altered BRCA gene to their children. 

Robertson says, “other factors that can increase an individual’s risk include obesity or Klinefelter’s syndrome, a genetic condition that increases hormone levels in the body.”

Warning Signs and Symptoms

The Susan G. Komen Foundation, an organization that works to advance breast cancer awareness and research, notes that a change in the breast or chest area could be a potential indicator of breast cancer. Some examples include a change in breast size or shape, a lump or hard knot in the breast or a rash on the nipple. Nipple discharge or pulling in of the nipple or other parts of the breast, while rare, can also be a result of breast cancer. 

In addition, the cancer can sometimes spread to the lymph nodes around the collar bone or under the arm, causing a lump that can be felt there before the tumor in the breast becomes noticeable. When noting any of these symptoms or any other unusual changes in the chest area, individuals should contact a medical provider immediately, regardless of gender.

Treatment Methods

“In general, there are not many differences in treatment options for men as opposed to women,” Robertson said. “Treatment for breast cancer usually involves a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and hormone therapy. Currently, mastectomies, or surgical removal of the breast, are the primary option, but current research is testing the effectiveness of breast conservation therapy in men. However, lumpectomies, which preserve the breast, are rare because of the small size of the male breast.”

According to the American Cancer Society, the stage of the patient’s breast cancer also plays a crucial role in determining which treatments they should receive. Other factors, such as the rate of cancer growth and the composition of the cancer cells, along with the patient’s personal preferences, are taken into account when treating breast cancer in men.

Robertson also says, “medical professionals try not to make differences in the treatment of the cancer, and the same tests and biopsies are performed to make a diagnosis. Men and women generally have the same side effects to the treatments, although men may be diagnosed at a later stage.”

Approaching Barriers, Stigma and Misconceptions

The prevalence of breast cancer in women can pose several challenges in the treatment of cancer in males. According to Dr. Cynthia Lynch, medical director of the Breast Cancer at CTCA Phoenix, breast cancer treatment is structured using prior studies performed on women, and there is limited data of the effects of various treatment methods on men. 

Furthermore, Robertson states that “breast cancer in males may be neglected for several months, as primary care providers do not usually identify the cancer immediately. Men are usually not taught to screen themselves for breast cancer and are unaware of the symptoms — as a result, men are diagnosed at a later age and later stage.”

The average age of a man diagnosed with breast cancer is 68, while the average age of a woman who is diagnosed is 62, as found by the National Cancer Institute.

In addition, some men may face body image issues, according to Dr. Sramila Aithal, a hematologist and medical oncologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Philadelphia. There are fewer support groups for men with breast cancer, and they may be unlikely to join a women’s support group. 

Robertson points out that October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is “more geared towards acknowledging struggles female patients and survivors face, as opposed to males.” According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, this can be isolating, as it perpetuates the myth that men do not get breast cancer, only women can.

Spreading Awareness

Robertson recommends spreading awareness about breast cancer in men specifically since it could have a large effect in lessening the degree of isolation patients could feel. She suggests that when a male patient comes in with potential symptoms, primary care doctors should ask about their family history to check if they are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Men should also be included in clinical trials for breast cancer in order to ensure they are receiving the most effective treatment options. In addition, social media can play an instrumental role in pushing the understanding of the disease — there are very few websites for men struggling with breast cancer. 

Some resources that men at risk of developing breast cancer or who are currently battling cancer can go to include The Male Breast Cancer Coalition, Man Up to Cancer, and The American Cancer Society. 

There is still much work to be done to provide men facing breast cancer with much-needed support and information. Yet Roberston believes the changes can start small — educating men on how they can screen themselves for symptoms, examining their family history and using genetic testing to find potential risks.

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